Saturday, March 14, 2009
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: The (Relatively) Neglected Legend
He was arguably the greatest high school basketball player who ever lived - three consecutive New York City Catholic championships at the fabled Power Memorial High School in New York, New York, and certified phenom status.
He was almost certainly the greatest college basketball player of all-time - three Player of the Year awards and three national titles in three years playing for John Wooden at empirical UCLA (sorry, Big Red Head - you only won two titles).
And while Michael Jordan was the best NBA player to ever lace them up, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was perhaps the most accomplished, with his 19 All-Star game appearances, 6 MVPs, and 6 championships, etc.
And yet, the basketball legend born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. remains more than a tad bit underrated, and in his retirement, he has been something resembling blackballed.
Abdul-Jabbar was elegant and unstoppable on the court, and thoughtful, intelligent, and articulate off it. But he was also shy and moody - his mood tending to lean very heavily in the antisocial direction for most of his career, which led to his adversarial relationship with the media.
Abdul-Jabbar hasn't played basketball in 20 years, but that aspect of his personality still lingers and haunts him to this day, even if he has changed. And it hurts him on at least a couple of fronts.
Alcindor arrived in Westwood in 1966, to much fanfare. He was LeBron James before LeBron James. In his college debut (and the inaugural game at the brand-new Pauley Pavillion), Alcindor led the Bruins freshman team to a 15-point victory over the preseason no.1 ranked UCLA varsity, who had won the first two of Wooden's ten national titles in 1964 and 1965.
In each of his three seasons on the varsity, the Bruins would win the NCAA title, amassing a total of 88 wins versus only two losses during that span, with Alcindor averaging more than 26 points and 15 rebounds per game. In his senior year of 1969 Alcindor was awarded the initial Naismith Men's College Player of the Year Award, after winning the AP award the previous two seasons.
So awesome was Alcindor that the NCAA banned dunking after his freshman year, in a useless attempt to curb his dominance.
Drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks with the first overall selection in the 1969 NBA draft, Alcindor entered the pro ranks at an auspicious moment: on the heels of Bill Russell's retirement and at the toe's of Wilt Chamberlain's 33rd birthday. A window was on the verge of widely opening for a new giant to enter through and dominate the game, and carry on the tradition of great centers.
Alcindor did not disappoint. In his rookie season he averaged 29 points and 15 rebounds per game. In his second season he led the Milwaukee Bucks to their first and only NBA championship, winning the Finals MVP for his efforts in the 4-0 sweep of the Washington Bullets. The day after winning the championship, he officially changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as part of a conversion to Islam that had taken place years prior.
But only the name on the back of the jersey would change, as Abdul-Jabbar would continue to play at his usual dominating level. During the 1970s, he won five regular season MVPs, and developed his signature move, the unblockable sky-hook, which would carry him to more than 38,000 points. In 1975 he would be traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he led a group of good, but not great, ballplayers to the playoffs several times with no championship success.
However, this would change in 1979, when a rookie guard named Magic Johnson joined the club. In their first season as teammates, Abdul-Jabbar, now 33, would win his final, and still record, sixth MVP award, and the Lakers would win the first of five titles during the 1980s. Six years later, he was still averaging more than 20 points per game. In 1985 he had won a second Finals MVP award, as the Lakers beat the Boston Celtics for the first time ever in the championship series, highlighted by Abdul-Jabbar's famous 30 point, 17 rebound, 8 assist, 3 block performance in a huge Game 2 win at Boston Garden - a direct response to a poor showing in Game 1's 148-114 loss, commonly referred to as the "Memorial Day Massacre."
Today, Abdul-Jabbar stands as the game's all-time leader in total points, field goals made, minutes played, and All-Star game selections, and being the complete player that he was, he also ranks in the top-five in total rebounds and blocks. Furthermore, he is the sole inventor of the most unstoppable shot in basketball history, as well as the only man to ever use it, let alone perfect it. His pro career was an achievement in longevity and conditioning; no one else has ever played so well for so long. And few were as great in their primes.
Which creates the contradiction.
In 2003, SLAM Magazine did a list ranking the 75 best players in NBA annals. And in this list they ranked Abdul-Jabbar...seventh. Seventh? How can someone with Abdul-Jabbar's resume be ranked only seventh? Fundamentally, it makes no sense. Sure, Magic was really the most indispensable player on the Showtime Lakers, and sure, Magic and Co. sort of carried him to those last two titles. But that is nitpicking. This was a clearly distinguished basketball player. Obviously, the list was in no way definitive, but it is consistent with the persistent undervaluing of Abdul-Jabbar's career.
My opinion? Despite his obvious greatness, Abdul-Jabbar was never beloved. But more importantly, he was never even liked by the media, whom he distrusted and avoided. And the fourth estate is the most powerful in all of sports. They are the ones who burnish the reputations and make the myths. At All-Star weekend, Phil Jackson, speaking of his once feuding former superstar duo, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, said, "The last man standing writes the history." This is so true. But here's the thing: The media will always be the last one's standing. They will outlast any athlete. And so they write the history. And so while they have not actively sought to sabotage Kareem, they also have not actively tried to pimp him, to cultivate his legend. He has never truly received the proper amount of attention, the kind of attention his exploits would seem to demand.
Which is why SLAM, a magazine founded in 1992, driven by writers who belong to the hip-hop era and the urban culture of the 1990s, ranked him at no. 7: not because they have any personal biases against a man that none of them likely ever covered or got to know very well, but because they have been impacted by the lack of recognition given to him by their older colleagues, who reported on him during his playing days and had the power to cultivate his legacy and ensure that he receive his just due, but did not.
In actuality, no basketball player, living or dead, had a more stellar overall career. But how often is that truth spoken?
What I cannot blame the media for, though, is Abdul-Jabbar's middling coaching career. He has been an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers and the Seattle SuperSonics, and a scout with the New York Knicks. His only head coaching experience came in the USBL, where he led the Oklahoma Storm to the league championship in 2002. Since 2005 he has occupied a special position as a tutor for Lakers centers, specifically youngster Andrew Bynum, whom he has helped develop into one of the game's best pivots.
And yet, NBA teams remain reluctant to give Abdul-Jabbar a head coaching position, fearing that he does not have the requisite people skills for the job. He has mellowed considerably since his playing days, but the past is a hard thing to shake.
No one is to be accosted for this. Abdul-Jabbar cannot be faulted for his once distant nature, nor can any NBA general manager be faulted for having the doubts that they have about him. But it is unfortunate. Magic got to be a head coach in the NBA, as did Larry Bird, and Jerry West, and Bill Russell. Kareem wants to be a head coach in the NBA, but no one will hire him. And for that I feel sorry for him.
You'd think his illustrious list of achievements would have earned him a shot, just the respect that they signal for, but they haven't. But this shouldn't be surprising, because they also haven't earned him the recognition he deserves as basketball's all-time most decorated player. This congruence can be traced back to his personality. His star can't help but shine, but it doesn't shine as brightly as it should.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar should be getting a better deal.